"Boys will be boys" while girls are "pretty in pink"

We still have a long way to go towards changing attitudes of society.

My nephew turned eight recently and I struggled to find him a birthday card that didn’t have football images on it. I visited several shops and they were all football-focused. I would like to say I was shocked but it wasn’t a surprise.

On International Women’s Day, we can and should encourage young girls and young women to dream, aspire and achieve. However, it’s essential we deal with the stereotyping of boys or else girls will forever face barriers, direct and indirect discrimination and will always "naturally" assume the bulk of caring responsibilities.

From an early age girls are channelled down the pink aisle and boys down the blue. Social pressure forces "choices" about clothes, toys, sports and hobbies. In the run up to Christmas, when toy advertisements escalate to frenzy point, the typecasting is evident. Girls are shown playing with crying dolls, as boys play with trucks and guns.  

Toy promotion is probably the least subtle form of consumer manipulation in the advertising industry. But it isn’t enough to say that parents, grandparents and indulgent aunts should change their buying choices. Recently in Sweden, a toy company was forced to revamp the way it advertises toys to boys and girls. Top Toy was told by the Swedish regulator to stop stereotyping in its advertising. As a result the company’s 2012 Christmas catalogue showed boys playing with a pink ironing board set and girls playing with a Nerf rifle. Personally, I’m not keen on children of either sex playing with guns but it’s a step in the right direction.

Beyond toys and clothing, a shift in media portrayal of girls and boys is overdue. The media’s early insistence on describing the late Reeva Steenkamp as ‘Pistorius’ girlfriend’ rather than naming her and the Sun’s disturbing portrayal of her in a bikini with the headline "3 shots. Screams. Silence. 3 more shots" appeared to glamorise violence by men against women. This was particularly disturbing given the timing which the day after the "One Billion Rising" global campaign highlighted violence against women and girls.

Gender stereotyping prevails in every section of society. In light of the sexual harassment allegations against Lord Rennard, the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 interviewed female politicians who spoke about the male dominated culture in politics. It was effectively suggested by interviewees that any woman going in to politics "needs to get balls and fight off unwanted sexual attention because given half a chance boys will be boys". In short, men can’t help themselves. Frankly, this is both wrong and insulting to most men.

No wonder progress towards parity in Britain’s democratic institutions continues to be slow. Women’s comparative representation in the UK is falling internationally. At its peak in 2001, we were 33 rd  out of 190 countries in terms of female representation. Now we’re 60th .

Women still face entrenched economic inequality in the UK. Women are poorer on average than men with 64 per cent of low paid workers being women. Women in full-time work earn 14.9 per cent less than men. Women have personal pensions worth just 62 per cent of the average for men.

Legislation and government make a difference but can only go so far. We still have a long way to go towards changing attitudes of society. Collectively and as individuals we need to challenge the persistent and insidious gender stereotypes that tell us boys will be boys while girls remain passively pretty in pink.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Fiona Twycross is a London-wide Labour Assembly Member

A girl chooses a Barbie. Photograph: Getty Images
Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses